Someone once said to me that the worst sight in the world was a hungry mother trying to feed a hungry, crying baby from an empty breast. In East Africa, and particularly Somalia, this is the scenario being played out each day now.
Mothers and fathers, having literally run out of options when it comes to providing the basics for their children, are burying them instead of being able to nurture them. As a parent myself, I could imagine the despair to which parents were driven in this terrible struggle to survive.
This week I got to meet some of those parents during a visit to Kenya and Somalia with former Irish President Mary Robinson, who is now the president of Oxfam International.
Long, desperate treks
We saw firsthand the trauma experienced by exhausted people who were pouring into Kenya across the Somali border. They had been walking for days in some cases, supporting elderly parents, coaxing young children along, and carrying young babies. Every single coping mechanism they might have had is gone. They have typically sold their livestock, eaten or sold any crops, and run out of money to buy food if it was available.
When families were lucky enough to reach the safety of the Dadaab refugee camp, they were able to get food, water, and shelter, along with medical attention for the severely malnourished. Thousands of people are now arriving in this camp each day.
In Somalia itself, people are also desperate. Our first stop was on the side of the road where a large group of exhausted women and children were settled under some trees. We spoke with Sadia Abdul, who had walked most of the way from Birbwell – 200 km (around 125 miles) away. She had left behind conflict, and any means of earning an income was gone. The group was hungry and in desperate need of food and water. Many had the listless look of people who have gone through so much and were nearly too weak to travel farther.
After a warm welcome, stories of loss
As we entered the village of Dollow, there was a reception party of boys and girls singing a welcome to Mary Robinson, and signs saying how much they appreciated the Irish focus on their plight and hoping that we can make a difference for them. Many locals remembered Mary Robinson from 1992, when she visited the country.
At the clinic there, we saw babies being weighed, measured, and checked for malnutrition. Too many babies were small and underweight for their age. The real worry now is that this is still early in the "hunger season." Hunger won’t peak until around October, and the head of the clinic believed that it could be worse this time around than it was in 1992.
The clinic is overwhelmed. Staff work from early in the morning until late at night, and people are already queuing when they open. The staff members give out a high-nutrition food known as Plumpy’nut to the children who are most malnourished. But because families have nothing else, they share this among themselves and no one gets the proper nutrition.
Sodo Abdulahi Nuh, 25, was having her 14-month-old malnourished baby boy weighed. He registered just 7 kg (15 pounds) on the scale. She has three other children to care for, too. Around six children die each week at this very clinic – because they have no food.
I spoke with a woman named Sofia, who had walked 40 km (around 25 miles) from Beladlow with her eight children. Her husband was killed in Mogadishu, and she is now staying with a host family that must be struggling desperately from this additional burden. She didn’t know what she was going to do next, but her priority was to try and get food for her family.
Amina had walked 50 km (around 30 miles) from Luk with three-year-old daughter, Asha. She had already lost two children. All of her cattle died, too.
In a Kenyan village, a sense of foreboding
In Kenya, too, families are running out of options. Karagi village in Turkana has buried 40 of its people in the past six months - most of them children, and all due to hunger.
The most striking thing about Karagi is that we didn’t see one man of working age. These men have travelled very long distances to try and find water for their livestock – the only source of income they have. They send back money when they can. The village is entirely composed of women, children, and elderly men who are on the brink of disaster. The sense of foreboding there was palpable.
In Marsabit, we heard from a 65-year-old from Tabich Galgal. He simply said that they have no food. Some members of the community are receiving food aid, but they share what they have with others, so everyone is trying to survive on rations.
The frustration in Tabich’s voice was evident as he described how they had tried everything. It’s not that they are not doing all they can to eke out a living - it’s just that the drought has placed such a huge burden on them, he said.
Then Elena Boru explained how the lack of water is having a devastating effect on women, who have to spend most of the day collecting it. She explained that there are plenty of people in the village who are more than willing to work, to do anything to help provide for their families, and she stressed that the elderly must be taken care of.
Along our travels we saw very feeble and clearly malnourished older people – a shocking sight, considering all they have contributed to their communities during their lives.
Averting needless suffering and death
Famine has now gripped parts of Somalia. This is the consequence of drought, climate change, conflict, entrenched poverty, and lack of investment in development. All those issues must be addressed, but first we have to deal with this humanitarian crisis. Twelve million lives are on the line, but if we act right now we can prevent further large-scale loss of life.
Oxfam is working throughout the region, providing food, clean water, and shelter, and helping people to earn a living again. We intend to reach three million people.
At the moment, Oxfam is implementing the single largest nutrition program in Mogadishu, the capital city, treating more than 12,000 severely malnourished children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. We are also providing water and sanitation for 300,000 internally displaced people and giving life-saving equipment to Somalia’s only functioning children’s hospital.
In Kenya and Ethiopia, we are giving people money through cash-for-work projects to build water tanks and reservoirs. We are trucking in water supplies for 32,000 people in Ethiopia and treating the water for drinking, cooking, washing, and keeping animals alive. We are helping people keep their livestock healthy and vaccinated. We are digging and repairing wells and boreholes, and providing sanitation and latrines.
But we can’t do it alone. We need the help of governments and the public to stop this human catastrophe from spreading and claiming greater numbers of lives.
Otherwise we are condemning countless thousands of people to a needless death.
Jim Clarken is the executive director of Oxfam Ireland.